Don't walk under NY ledges

The House refuses to spend $700 billion in taxpayer money on a financial system bailout. Stock market falls 777 points in one day. It's the end of the world! The big crash! We'll never recover!

The next day? Stock market closes up 485 points. Which proves, once again, that the Bush administration doesn't know what the hell they're talking about. And neither does anyone else.

We can only hope that the rest of us survive the fallout as the greedhead Wall Street types take it in the shorts.

Raiders' revolving door

Guess it was inevitable, but Al "Spawn of Satan" Davis has fired Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin.

Kiffin's record over less than two seasons was a piss-poor 5-15, but I had hopes the Raiders would turn it around behind young quarterback JaMarcus Russell and rookie running back Darren McFadden (who arrived from the Univ. of Arkansas -- Go Hogs!). Unfortunately, the Raiders keep snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as they say, with fourth-quarter meltdowns.

Kiffin, the youngest coach in the NFL at 31, will no doubt scurry back to the college ranks where he won't have to worry so much about the consequences of flapping his young lips. According to this story, Davis took more exception to what Kiffin said than to how the team performed.

As long as Davis is there, any coach willing to take the Raiders top job should have his head examined.

Bargain buys = big bucks

I went to the supermarket for a gallon of milk and spent $90.

How does this happen? Why does every trip to the market result in huge expenditures of money and time?

Here's how it went that day: I announced to my family that I was headed to the store for milk. I asked (and here was my first mistake) whether anybody needed anything while I was there.

Everyone shouted at once. They needed ice cream. They needed toiletries. We were out of the favorite brand of sugary cereal. We had syrup, but no waffles. Mom needed items (olive oil!) that Dad never remembers.

It was too much too fast. I had to make a list. But I sternly kept it short. This wasn't the weekly shopping trip that always results in an overflowing shopping cart and exultant cheers from the checkout clerks. No, this was a quickie store run. Just milk. And a few other items. But mostly milk.

One look at the list told me I'd need a shopping cart (my second mistake). Soon I was rolling up and down the aisles, searching for the items on the list.

Which is exactly what the supermarkets want us to do. Go up and down each aisle. Take our time. Browse. See something omitted from the list. Spot a special on strawberries. Discover that a favorite brand of coffee is on sale.

Pretty soon, my cart was full. Not piled-up full, not so full that I'm leaving a trail of dropped Pop-Tarts in my wake. But pretty danged full. Ninety dollars full.

All because we were running out of milk.

What is it about supermarkets that cause this behavior? The impulse buys. The stockpiling. Something about all that brightly packaged bounty prompts us to spend, spend, spend.

We wouldn’t do other shopping this way. For instance, you wouldn't go out shopping for a new car and bring home a yacht and a Sherman tank. (Picture telling your spouse: "Sure, hon, we don't really need a tank, but they never spoil, and they were on sale.")

When it comes to food, we feel entitled to stock up, particularly if there are teens in the household. It'll all get eaten eventually, we tell ourselves, and you can never have too much microwave popcorn at hand.

This stockpiling mentality is the fuel behind the success of giant warehouse stores like Costco. Buy in bulk, this philosophy goes, and save money. Sure, you've got enough toilet paper to last until 2037, but what the heck, it's on sale.

I refuse to shop at Costco and its imitators. My feeling is: You should never go impulse shopping in a place where there are forklifts. If you find yourself buying a "bargain" that's so large it won't fit in a standard shopping cart, then you should reconsider.

Who's got that kind of storage space? Every Costco shopper I know has stuff stacked to the rafters in their homes. Yes, you can save money by buying 200 rolls of paper towels at once, but if you have to rent a warehouse to hold them, you've reached the point of diminishing returns.

To buy nothing more than a gallon of milk, it might be safest to the take the opposite route -- go to a convenience store. Run in, run out, avoid the temptations of the supermarket.

But have you seen how much they're charging for milk at convenience stores? (Not $90, but too much.) And there's still the problem of impulse buys.

How much beef jerky does one family need?


File under "H" for "Hopeless"

Every business needs a filing system, but efficient filing is particularly vital for those of us who work in home offices.

When you work at home, you must be able to retrieve information without a lot of wasted time and effort. Every minute counts. And, if you work alone, then you have no one else to blame when stuff goes missing.

A proper filing system not only keeps data handy, it also serves as a "track record" of your home-based business, from its optimistic launch to its eventual, unsurprising demise. Use file labels that are easy to change so you can chart the bathtub-drain geometry of this downward spiral.

The best way to keep your files organized is to utilize a simple alphabetical system. Here are some suggestions for labeling the folder tabs:

Assets -- Usually a very slim file.

Business Cards -- Collect these from everyone you meet while "networking." They make dandy toothpicks. "B" also stands for "Bankruptcy," but that comes later.

Computer -- Outdated manuals, voided warranties and backup disks kept in a folder stained with tears.

Debts -- This file can grow so large it needs its own drawer.

Expenses -- Everything the IRS might ever allow you to deduct, up to and including psychiatric treatment.

Financial Plan -- Typically an empty folder.

Goals -- Can also be labeled "Goose Chases." Or, "Grasping at Straws."

Health -- Leave extra room for medical bills, etc. This file tends to grow as stress increases.

Investments -- Or, "Idiotic Decisions."

Junk -- A catch-all, the last stop before the "round file."

Keepsakes -- Awards, letters from satisfied clients, mementos of the good times. Thumb through this file whenever you're severely depressed.

Leases -- Folder makes a giant sucking sound whenever it's opened.

Marketing Plan -- See "Wishful Thinking"

Newsletters -- These make good kindling.

Out of Date -- The letter "O" can also stand for "Overdue" or "Overly Optimistic."

Profits -- Hahahahaha.

Quacks -- See "Health."

Resumes -- It's smart to keep these handy and updated. You could be looking for a "real job" any minute now.

Supplies -- "S" could stand for "Successes" or "Satisfaction," but "Supplies" are a sure thing.

Taxes -- File should contain two business cards: One for accountant, one for bail bondsman.

Upcoming -- Not a reference to your lunch, but to pending events. Easy to change this one to "Useless" or "Unemployment Benefits."

Vehicle -- Leave room for a fat file because it will be a long time before you can replace your old beater.

Wishful Thinking -- Scratch out label and replace with "What Was I Thinking." Then "Wasted Life." Then "Whiskey."

"X" -- You never need this folder unless you go into xylophone sales, so it can be used as a place to hide overdue bills from your spouse.

Youth -- Also see "M" for "Misspent" or "L" for "Lost."

Zippo -- Contains the lighter you'll need to set your filing system ablaze.


Kindergarten Cop says no to lapdog law

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill that would've made it illegal to drive with a pet in your lap.

The bill was put forward by Republican Assemblyman Bill Mize after he saw a woman driving with three dogs in her lap. The bill would've made such distracted driving punishable by a $35 fine.

What about other pets? A dog in your lap is one thing. What if your pet is a monkey? Or a llama?

Get out and push

And we're complaining about paying extra for checked baggage.

In Zhengzhou, China, passengers were forced to push their plane to the airport after it landed at the end of a 500-mile trip. The plane landed safely, but then its engines failed. A tow truck enlisted to move the 20-ton plane also died.

The 69 passengers and airport personnel pushed the plane for two hours before finally getting it where it belonged.

Full story here.


Dancin' to the doghouse rock

Is any creature more optimistic than a dog?

No matter how often we disappoint our dogs, they maintain a sunny outlook, especially when it comes to us, their humans. They expect us to do our best by them, every time. And, they're quick to forgive and forget -- just because you didn't offer a snack this time doesn't mean you won't the very next time you get up from the sofa.

You could argue that dogs simply have faulty memories, that their jellybean-sized brains don't allow for disappointment. Hope springs eternal when you can't remember five minutes ago. But I prefer to think of it as optimism.

Take our dog Elvis. (Please. Haha!) He's always delighted to go for a ride in the car, though the destination almost always is somewhere he hates. The vet. The kennel.

(Note: Both destinations are in the same building. The drive from our house to the "pet hospital" takes, oh, 40 seconds. We only use a vehicle for this trip because we live on top of a precipitous hill and the pet hospital's at the bottom. Also, we're usually running late for our appointment.)

If you or I had a similar history with automobile rides, you couldn't get us anywhere near the garage. But Elvis happily leaps into the car, sniffing seats and slobbering on the windows, apparently never making the connection that, in 40 seconds or so, he'll get reacquainted with a rectal thermometer.

Even after we arrive at the familiar pet hospital, he's excited, running around, sniffing all the places where other critters have "been." Only when someone unveils a hypodermic needle does he think this trip was a bad idea. And those misgivings only last a few seconds. Because, as soon as the vet's done, I say, "Elvis! Want to go for a ride in the car?"

Hurray! Another ride! Leap, sniff, slobber. Back home in less than a minute.

Whew, what an outing! Such a long car ride! To recuperate, Elvis must now have a snack, then sleep for the next 17 hours.

I'm convinced we could do this same routine, up to and including the shots, every day, for the next 125 years, and Elvis still would get excited to go in the car. Because he's an optimist. This time, his jellybean tells him, could be different! We could go someplace fun! Maybe a field trip to the snack factory! Yay!

The only thing Elvis loves more than a car ride is to go for a walk. It's his chance to go out into the wider world of the neighborhood and sniff all the local "bulletin boards." Always a new and exciting experience.

He knows which sneakers I wear for our walks, so if he sees me put them on, he starts to get excited. And if I put on my sunglasses, hoo-boy, he spins in crazed anticipation. If I then shut him in the backyard and go somewhere without him, he might be momentarily confused, but not truly disappointed. He knows I'll come back eventually. And maybe then we'll go for a walk! Or a ride in the car! Yay!

Wouldn't it be nice if people could so easily forget disappointments? Alas, we humans (with the exception of some members of Congress) do not have brains the size of jellybeans. We remember the bad times as well as the good.

But maybe we could take a lesson from our pets: It's as easy to be optimistic as it is to be negative and cynical. Try it!

If you do, I'll take you for a ride in the car.


Found money

Yes, times are hard and banks are mismanaged. But if you find $280,000 mistakenly deposited into your account, a spending spree is still a bad idea.

Police charged an Altoona, PA, man with theft this week, alleging that he spent more than $150,000 in three months after the money appeared in his account last fall.

Herbert Starbird, 57, claims he checked with the bank and was told the deposit was his to keep. The bank says he never notified officials about the mistake. First Commonwealth Bank, which discovered the error last February, has filed suit seeking repayment.

Full story here.

Bigfoot refuses to die

After the recent Bigfoot hoax, in which rubes from Georgia tried to foist a frozen Halloween costume on the gullible public, you'd think we'd be done with Sasquatch. But you'd be wrong.

In British Columbia, three different sightings of Bigfoot have been reported in the past month, including one in which a woman saw a big, hairy beast running into the forest on two legs. Story here.

In Jeanette, PA, between 300 and 500 Bigfoot enthusiasts are gathering this weekend for a conference, which includes visits to four spots in Pennsylvania where the giant ape-like creature has been sighted. Story here.

Come on, Northern California. Bigfoot is our invention, er, symbol. We can't let these other yahoos outdo us. Get out to the woods and sight something! I'll bring the ape suit.


Crunching the numbers

It's hard to get your head around $700 billion.

The Bush administration wants to use that much money to bail out the troubled financial industry, thereby saving the economy from another Great Depression. The administration says the taxpayer money would buy up problem mortgages and much of it would eventually get paid back. Hahaha.

The folks at the Florida Sun-Sentinel did the math, and found that this is what you could get for $700 billion:

You could literally buy the world a Coke. One two-liter bottle per person per week for a year.

Or, you could buy a 60-inch high-def TV for every man, woman and child in the U.S.

Or, you could buy braces for the teeth of everyone in Great Britain -- and France.

Or, you could buy all 32 NFL teams -- 27 times.

Or, you could provide Mac laptops to every school-age child in the U.S. -- seven laptops per kid.

Best option of all: You could buy a year's worth of gasoline for every person in the U.S.

Now that might boost the economy.

Ugly and Unfriendly, Inc.

As a work-at-home dad, I'm always on the lookout for items that help justify my decision to remain unemployed -- oops, I meant self-employed -- and a couple of new publications do just that.

One is a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which found that attractive people tend to make more money than their more homely counterparts. The other is a self-help book by Tim Sanders called "The Likeability Factor: How to Boost your L-Factor and Achieve Your Life's Dreams."

This is just the kind of workplace pressure I don't need. To become a success, to even get paid as much as the next guy, I need to be handsome and likeable? I'm sorry, but that's asking too much. Better that I continue to work alone at home, where I can be as unkempt and unfriendly as usual.

The Federal Reserve study found that attractive people tend to earn 5 percent more per hour than average-looking folks, after factoring out other variables like education and experience. Worse yet, the researchers found a "plainness penalty" of 9 percent less per hour, punishing those with below-average looks. The worst penalty hit women who were obese, who were paid 17 percent less per hour than slim women. Tall men, on the other hand, scored a slight "height premium" for each inch they towered over the national median.

The Fed said these differences in earning might result from differences in self-confidence or social skills. Or, it could be plain old discrimination.

The government should study this topic more carefully, because I know we all have questions. For example, I personally am abnormally tall. Does that mean I've been paid extra all these years? I don't think so. As I become increasingly obese, does that cancel out my height? Does my lifelong attachment (har!) to facial hair work against me?

In general, can the "beauty premium" be proven to exist, and can we find ways to mitigate such discrimination? Do short, fat, homely people have a class-action lawsuit here? Can an "extreme makeover" result in a promotion? Can we now argue that plastic surgery is a legitimate business expense and should therefore be tax-deductible?

Meanwhile, Sanders, an author and motivational speaker, got lots of media attention for his book, which stresses smiling and listening and empathy and appreciation for others and similar such "likeable" traits.

This would seem to be good news for those suffering the "plainness penalty." Maybe you can't change your face, but you can plaster a smile upon it. Maybe it's too late to grow taller, but you can grow more empathetic to your co-workers. People will say, "You know, old (insert your name here) is ugly as a mud fence, but he sure is friendly!"

Likeability's not for me. If I started acting likeable in a workplace, colleagues would want to "share" things with me and tell me their personal problems and generally have conversations. Who needs that grief? From there, it's only a short leap to co-workers selling me pounds of band candy that would make me even fatter, which could affect my earnings. Frankly, I can't afford the cut in pay.

Yes, these two publications give me all the ammunition I need in my ongoing battle to remain a grumpy househermit. Clearly, the corporate world has hung out a sign that says, "Ugly Old Grouches Need Not Apply."

That's good enough for me. I know when I'm not wanted. I'll stay home.


Rev. Wright's got nothing on this guy

A grainy YouTube video that surfaced Wednesday shows vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin receiving a prayer seeking to protect her from "all forms of witchcraft."

The 2005 blessing came from a Kenyan pastor who asked for God's intervention, protection and financial aid as Palin sought higher office. Palin, who held up her hands silently during the prayer, announced her run for governor a few months later.

In the prayer at the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, Bishop Thomas Muthee asked God to "use her to turn this nation the other way around." That's what we're all afraid of.

Full story here.

This should go without saying, but ...

If you're going to a traffic court hearing regarding your suspended or revoked driver's license, you really, really should get someone else to give you a ride.

Authorities fed up with illegal drivers in Kane County, IL, set up a sting this week, targeting 38 motorists due to appear in court. Plainclothes officers watched for the defendants to get into vehicles and drive away. Then they radioed to prowling patrol cars, which stopped the miscreants, gave them tickets and towed their cars.

Police cited 10 of the drivers, including one who said he hadn't had a valid driver's license in 27 years.

Full story here.

Bank robbery 101

Mask? Check.

Surgical gloves so you won't leave any fingerprints? Check.

Cape? Check.

Fake bomb? Check.

Wait. Cape? Never mind.

Nerve? You knew you were forgetting something.

A bank robber dressed in the above supervillain outfit walked into a Toronto branch of TD Canada Trust on Tuesday and handed the teller a note saying he had a bomb and wanted all the money. Before the teller could hand over any cash, the robber fled.

The "bomb" he left behind turned out to be a box full of drywall. Go figure.

Brief story here.


Clutter sputter

Sociologists often study garbage to learn how society works, what we value, what we throw away. But it's our clutter that really reveals the way we lead our lives.

Every home has clutter. Couldn't a sociologist decipher the interests and values of the household by examining what's left lying around?

For instance, here are signs of an unhealthy interest in television: All chairs and sofas in the living room face a big-screen TV, and the clutter consists of wrinkled TV Guides, four different remote controls, empty chip bags and pop bottles, and a life-size cardboard cutout of David Hasselhoff.

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that artsy-craftsy folks occupy a home cluttered with knitting needles, balls of yarn, silk flower arrangements, vats of potpourri, and plaster geese wearing cute hats.

When you enter a home for the first time, can't you tell immediately whether it houses children? Most homes with children look like the aftermath of an explosion at Toys "R" Us. Small kids can scatter toys faster than weary parents can ever put them away. The only answer, really, is to wait until the children get older, then move to a new house.

Teen-agers shed clutter like dandruff. Everywhere they go, they leave trails of compact disks and gum wrappers and leaky pens and electronic gizmos and rock-star posters and dirty socks and dirty dishes and unfinished homework.

Yes, teens' clutter output is prodigious, but what's truly amazing is that they don't know they're doing it. How many of you recognize the following conversation?

Parent: "Pick that up."
Kid: "What?"
Parent: "That. Right there. You just dropped that."
Kid: "Dropped what?"
Parent: "That! Can't you see that? Pick it up and put it away."
Kid: "Oh, that. OK." (Walks away)
Parent: "Where are you going?"
Kid: "My room."
Parent: "Well, pick that up and take it with you."
Kid: "What?"
Parent: "Aaaaauuugh!" (Bursts into flames)

If a team of sociologists studied the clutter at our house, they'd go away thinking my family had two major interests in life:

1) Reading. Which is true. Open books and magazines cover every horizontal surface at our house, including the floors.

2) Shoes.

We tend to be a barefoot family, which means all of us shed our shoes as soon as we land at home. Our sons' elaborate sneakers are so large, they look like furniture. My wife apparently believes her attractive shoes should be out on display rather than tucked away in a dark closet.

Empty pairs of shoes sit at odd angles all around our house, as if a cocktail party had been vaporized, leaving behind only the footwear. Or, as if the Rapture occurred and God said to the assembled, "You can all go to Heaven, but your shoes stay here!"

Once a week or so, we have the Great Shoe Roundup at our house, corralling them in closets, chasing down the strays.

Here's how I announce that it's time to herd the footwear. I say, "Hey there, buckaroos. Pick up those shoes."

And my sons say, in unison: "What shoes?"


Let me take that bird off your hands

Two puppeteers in Atlanta have learned that there's such a thing as too much realism.

Jeff Domke and Alan Louis were in the parking lot of the Center for Puppetry Arts, taking photos of a new, authentic-looking puppet of a bird, when a red-tailed hawk swooped down and attacked them.

Domke said the hawk hit his head and hand before realizing the bird puppet was fake and flying away. No one was seriously injured.

The puppeteers said they took the attack as a "compliment."

Full story here.


Famed wingnut David Blaine's latest feat of endurance is hanging upside down in New York for 60 hours. Blaine is attempting the stunt above Wollman Rink in Central Park, even though doctors warn that hanging upside down for that long can damage internal organs and possibly cause blindness.

Wait, this is New York. Blindness is the least of his problems. He should worry that the local wiseguys will find a really long stick and use him for a pinata.

Full story here.


Only in California

What do you do when you catch armed men stealing your marijuana plants?

If you're in Laytonville, CA, you call the sheriff's office, which promptly arrests three carloads of young men who'd come to town for the express purpose of stealing dope from area growers.

Authorities say the pot bandits read about the local agriculture in "High Times" magazine and decided to steal some for resale. When the owner caught them, they threatened him with a firearm, and deputies found several guns in the thieves' cars.

Dudes. Not cool.

Full story here.

Travel gives you the business

Nothing says "business trip" like a shrieking fire alarm in a motel at three o'clock in the morning.

I was reminded of this in San Francisco, where I traveled for business and several tax-deductible meals in expensive restaurants. I was in my "firm" motel bed, regularly tossing and turning so I wouldn't end up like a pizza -- lumpy on one side and absolutely flat on the other -- when the alarm went off in the hallway, just outside my room.

Smelling no smoke, I proceeded to violate all fire evacuation rules, taking time to use the bathroom and throw on some clothes, including a jacket and shoes. Made sure I had my wallet, my cell phone and other necessities. Then I helped motel employees herd the rest of the blinking guests outdoors into a refreshing light rain.

Fire trucks screamed up. Sleepy-looking firefighters checked out the building, and declared the shrieking to be a false alarm. After thirty minutes, we guests were allowed to return to our rooms, where it took mere hours to fall asleep again.

Getting no sleep in motels is an accepted fact of business trips. There's always something. If it's not a fire alarm, it's the phone trilling with a wrong number or a drunken party down the hall or an oversexed couple in the next room.

Maybe it's different for those of you who fly first-class and stay in swank, soundproof hotel rooms and have to really work to spend your substantial per diem. But for the rest of us, business travel can be one long chorus of, "Oh, how I want to go home."

Here are some of the other harsh realities of life on the road:

--You will catch a cold during your trip. Shaking all those hands. Breathing the recirculated air on commercial flights. You'll pick up a virus and bring it home to your whole family, who will not appreciate the souvenir.

--Despite your sudden illness, you will gain weight on your business trip. Too much rich food, too much high-calorie booze, not enough exercise.

--No matter how well you pay attention or how many mnemonic devices you employ, you will forget a client's name. At the worst possible moment.

--Despite the big "Hello, my name is" badge you're forced to wear, someone important will forget your name, or call you by the wrong name, or admit they've never heard of you. This will make you briefly miserable.

--You will accumulate many business cards on your trip. When you get home, you'll have no idea who's who.

--When you're on an airplane, your fellow passengers will not attempt to strike up a conversation unless you're trying to quietly read. Or sleep. Then you won't be able to shut them up, short of stuffing their mouths with the airline's tiny pillows.

--You will watch too much idiotic television in your hotel room. There's no help for it. You've got to do something while you're not sleeping all night.

--At least one of your many restaurant meals will be a real disappointment.

--Overeating will fill you with regret, among other things.

--Somewhere along the way, you'll get lost in a rental car. Just long enough to make you late.

--You'll arrive at an appointment only to find that the people there had no idea you were coming, and no record of your company.

--You will miss your family, while discovering anew how annoying other people can be.
Particularly those who set off fire alarms.

There's a reason for these harsh realities. They make you happy for the business trip to end.

Repeat after me: "There's no place like home. There's no place like home."


Hot times in Illinois

What's with the bars in Illinois? Two days ago, we brought word of a liquor license suspension in Canton, IL, because of topless midget wrestling, now another saloon's in trouble because the bartender was nude.

Deputies doing a "routine check" in Delhi, IL, entered the Cabin Tavern to find that bartender Janet Brannon, 33, was serving in the buff. She was arrested and charged with public indecency.

Don't these bars have air-conditioning?

Full story here.


Hung up over cell phones

Can you hear me now? No? Good.

According to a recent poll, you probably don't want to hear me when I'm talking on my cell phone. And I certainly don't want to hear you.

I'm not talking about reception here. I'm talking about people using their phones near us, forcing us to listen to their conversations. I'm talking about phones jingling during movies or concerts. I'm talking about people driving very badly while gabbing on the phone.

I'm often agitated over these irritations. Not surprising, given that I tend to be an old sorehead, but it turns out that I'm not alone.

A University of Michigan poll, reported by The Associated Press, found that public cell phone use is "a major irritation" to six in 10 people. About four in 10 said there should be a law banning people from using cell phones in museums, movie theaters and restaurants. Eight in 10 believe cell phone use while driving is a major safety hazard.

The poll also found, however, that people like the convenience of cell phones. Eighty percent said the phones have made their lives easier.

"These findings suggest Americans have mixed feelings about cell phone use," said Mitchell "No Duh" Traugott, a researcher for the university's Institute for Social Research.

People want to use their cell phones whenever they want, but they think other people are annoying when they do the same. It's this very selfishness that causes problems in the first place. Good manners require that you don't disturb others, for whatever reason, but selfish people put their own needs first. They need to talk on the phone right now, and the rest of us can go hang.

A few examples from my own life:

--An intricate ring tone started up in a movie theater. Apparently, the phone's owner had carefully concealed the phone in her purse because it took four or five rings to locate it. "Hello?" she brayed. "I'm in a movie right now." She went on to name the movie and give a capsule review of what she'd seen so far. The audience grumbled and hissed, but she was oblivious.

--I was behind a car traveling slower than the speed limit, at night, in the fast lane. The car was labeled all over for a driving school, which meant the lone occupant was a driving instructor, talking on the phone.

--My family waited on a plane at a crowded airport. A guy directly behind my wife used his cell phone to discuss a pending business deal, loud enough to be heard on Mars. Bad enough, but he also used the "f-word" as if it were punctuation. Finally, my wife had enough. She wheeled and shouted, "Hey! Knock it off!" He sheepishly got off the phone.

(Two points here: One, when my wife gets mad, people, um, knock it off. And, two, she was angry because this guy was talking ugly when children were present. Not that our own teens haven't heard the "f-word" before; they've been nearby when I've attempted plumbing repairs. But other people's children.)

Look, I own a cell phone myself. It is convenient. It's great in times of emergency. But I keep other people in mind when I use it. I go off by myself when I talk on the phone. I turn off the ringer at public events. I almost never use it while driving.

These are just good manners, folks. Practice them. Because if you keep bugging the rest of us, there's a good chance that six in 10 people will want to throttle you.

If one of them is my wife, you'd better knock it off.

Shiver me timbers

Ahoy, mateys! In case you haven't already heard, Sept. 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, so avast your everyday speech and let your inner swashbuckler come to the surface.

International Talk Like a Pirate Day was started in 1995 by two guys who call themselves Cap'n Slappy and Ol' Chumbucket. It became popular after Dave Barry wrote about it in 2002.

This brings up my sons' favorite joke:

Pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel attached to his crotch. The bartender says, "Hey, Cap'n, what's with the steering wheel?"

The pirate says, "Arrr, it's driving me nuts!"


Bad day in Munchkinland

The liquor license of a bar in Canton, IL, has been suspended for 60 days because two women wrestlers went topless during its recent midget wrestling event.

Kim Scott, owner of Outskirts Bar and Grill, said she was (conveniently) outside smoking when the two women removed their tops while wrestling in oil. As soon as she got inside, she put a stop to it.

But that wasn't good enough for the city liquor commission, which voted unanimously this week to suspend the license. City liquor ordinances prohibit nudity.

Mayor Kevin Meade said the action was "meant to send a message to other businesses in this town that this won't be tolerated."

No word on what other businesses might've been contemplating the addition of topless midget wrestling.

Full story here.

Generation Zzzzz

Late on a recent Saturday morning, I was working away in my home office when my teen-aged son appeared in the doorway, fresh from bed, enjoying a langorous stretch-and-yawn.

"That," he said, "was possibly the best 13 hours of sleep I've ever had."

I was so jealous, I wanted to pinch him.

Thirteen hours! Are you kidding me? The only way I could sleep for 13 hours straight would be under the influence of a) a powerful sedative or b) the flu.

Not that I wouldn't like to sleep 13 hours in a row. Nothing would make me happier. But there's no way I could do it, not at my age.

The Generation Gap largely can be explained in terms of our approaches to sleep.

When you're young, you never want to go to bed (you might miss something fun). Once you do turn in, you never want to get up again, and parents sometimes are forced to resort to extreme methods (such as ice water or firecrackers) to rouse you in time for school.

Once we get to be a "certain age," we can't wait to go to bed at night. We're so tired all the time, so frazzled and run down, bed seems like a reward for surviving another day. Once we're there, though, we often can't stay asleep. Our children, our worries, our bladders wake us up during the night. Next thing you know, it's morning and we don't feel well-rested at all.

We then must go wake our blissfully sleeping children, damn them, even though we're much too tired to break out the morning firecrackers.

Yes, I'm speaking in generalities here. I'm sure there are adults out there who can sleep all day long when they feel like it. They're probably people who have clear consciences and enormous bladders. Most of all, they're probably people who don't have children.

(For years, I secretly blamed our two sons for my poor sleep habits. I was doing fine, I always said, until those years when we had babies in the house. Then, two o'clock feedings and midnight colic disrupted my sleep, and I never fully recovered. Meanwhile, these boys can sleep around the clock, silently mocking my fatigue. It's just not fair.)

Now, science has found another reason for the disparity in sleep habits: Adulthood itself.

Adulthood begins when people stop sleeping in, according to researchers at the University of Munich, quoted in the magazine "Science." The researchers studied the sleeping patterns of more than 25,000 people in Switzerland and Germany, finding each person's "chronotype," which they identified as the midpoint between going to bed and waking up on days when the subjects could sleep as late as they wanted.

The researchers found that the average chronotype moved later and later during the teen years, then shifted back steadily, earlier and earlier, after the age of 20. The scientists were unable to determine whether this was a result of biology or "partying," but the pattern was indisputable.

So listen, parents: Don't resent your teens' ability to sleep all day. They don't mean to show off; they probably can't help it. When they reach adulthood, their patterns will change, and they, too, will be up at the crack of dawn, worrying and yawning and demanding urgent entry to the bathroom.

Until then, there are always firecrackers.


Boom town

Residents of several neighborhoods in Orlando, FL, have learned that their houses were built on a World War II bombing range that was never properly cleaned up.

More than 200 munitions have been found in the 8-year-old subdivisions near Orlando International Airport, most on the grounds of the local middle school. Federal officials say it's unlikely that any of the munitions could explode, but at least one person has been injured so far.

Naturally, this hasn't been great for property values. And it's spurred the usual lawsuits, etc.

Whew, good thing this hasn't happened anywhere else. Oh, wait, there was that bombing-range neighborhood in Arlington, TX. And that one in Washington, D.C. It's enough to make you scared to dig in the yard.

Full story here.

Calling all carbs

Today's tip for criminals everywhere: If you're trying to elude police, don't do it in a stolen doughnut truck.

Police in Tampa, FL, say Shelton Denard Reed, 38, was captured after allegedly driving drunk, running down a pedestrian and fleeing the scene of the accident. All in a Krispy Kreme doughnut truck.

Reed, a former Krispy Kreme driver, apparently swiped the truck from a parking lot. He was charged with grand theft auto, DUI with severe bodily injury and other crimes.

Full story here.

Bad news for the guy in the Mickey Mouse suit

A Saudi cleric has declared that Mickey Mouse is a "soldier of Satan" and should be killed.

Sheik Muhammad al-Munajid says Islamic law labels the mouse a "repulsive, corrupting creature" that works for Satan and will burn down one's house. Islamic law allows the killing of mice "in all cases," including, apparently, when the mouse is make-believe and animated.

The sheik condemned all cartoons that glorify rodents. Speedy Gonzales, Jerry and Mighty Mouse were unavailable for comment.

Full story here.


How about 'Dumb' and 'Dumber?'

A Sacramento couple has refused to sign their marriage documents because of California's new wording that refers to two people getting married as "Party A" and "Party B" rather than "bride" and "groom."

Rachel Bird and Gideon Codding say they're old-fashioned and don't approve of the appellations that were changed to allow for same-sex weddings.

"We are traditionalists -- we just want to be called bride and groom," said Bird, 25.

Since they refused to sign the documents, their marriage isn't recognized by the state. Does "living in sin" violate their traditions? Or, are they just planning the traditional lawsuit?

Full story here.

Gab bag

Got fear? Odds are, if someone wants you to make a little speech, you're feeling anxious and afraid.

Fear of public speaking is the most common social phobia, experts say, affecting 75 percent of the population. More people fear public speaking than fear spiders, snakes, scorpions, toddlers, you name it. Some people are so afraid of speaking in public that they get actual physical symptoms, such as nausea, stuttering or trouser dampness.

There's a name for this fear: Glossophobia. You'd think fear of public speaking would be Podiaphobia or something melodic like that, but no, it's glossophobia, from the Greek "glosso," meaning tongue, and "phobia," meaning fear. Fear of tongue! Those wacky, fun-loving Greeks!

I give a lot of speeches in my job. Fortunately, I'm one of the lucky 25 percent of Americans who do not fear speaking in public. I'm afraid of everything else, but not public speaking. In fact, I'm so comfortable at a podium that I've been diagnosed with Hypo-Anxiety Modality, or HAM, which means that, once I start talking, the only way to shut me up is to send everyone home and turn off the lights.

But I recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be a HAM. Nervous public speakers find that any kind of talk, from a short presentation at work to a commencement address to an extended eulogy, can be cause for alarm. For you glossophobics out there, we offer the following tips:

DO be prepared. Write out your speech ahead of time rather than trying to "wing it." Last time we looked, you had no wings. A little rehearsal never killed anybody.

DON'T read directly from the written speech the whole time. Look up occasionally. Try to act as if you're talking to a friend rather than droning on from some printed document.

DO speak slowly and clearly. You are not an auctioneer.

DON'T speak so slowly that you hypnotize the audience.

DO make gestures for emphasis and to keep the crowd's attention, but keep the gestures subtle and gentle. Jerky, broad movements make people think of Hitler.

DON'T wink and give a "thumbs up." Former President Clinton ruined that one for everybody.

DO pause for effect. Also, if you're lucky enough to get applause or laughter, give it time to run its course. Don't talk all over applause; it makes the audience unwilling to offer any more.

DON'T pause in expectation of applause. The audience will let you know when. If you look around for someone to start clapping and no one does, you will embarrass yourself and others, and you might actually melt into the floor.

DO find a friendly face in the audience. Tell yourself you're talking to that one person, not a multitude.

DON'T, however, stare at that person the whole time. Staring gives people the creeps, and may cause the recipient to run screaming from the room.

DON'T picture the audience members in their underwear. This feat of imagination is often recommended to anxious speakers as a way to help them relax, a reminder that the audience members put their boxers on one leg at a time, too. But this doesn't work unless the audience is extremely attractive. In most cases, picturing the audience in its underwear will produce giggling or mild nausea.

The main thing to remember is that, in most cases, the audience is on your side. They want you to succeed in your presentation. They want to be entertained and informed. They're there because they're interested in what you have to say.

So relax. Probably very few, if any, audience members are picturing you in your underwear. Really.


Sleep with the . . . wait, what?

A man on Death Row in Texas says he wants to become fish food.

Gene Hathom, a convicted triple murderer, is still awaiting results of his various appeals, but if they fail, he wants his executed corpse turned over to an artist who will then freeze it and chop it into fish food.

The idea, says artist Marco Evaristti, is that people will be asked to feed the bits to an aquarium full of goldfish as part of a performance-art protest against capital punishment, which he considers "vulgar and primitive."

Evaristti is the same artist who made headlines in 2000 with an exhibit of goldfish swimming in electric blenders. Gallery visitors were invited to push a button and make fish soup. Authorities in Copenhagen made him take down that installation.

Full story here.

Stars in my, um, eyes

My horoscope on America Online begins this way today: "Your 2nd House of Money is cooking today as the Full Moon aligns with electrifying Uranus."

I'll do a lot of things for money, but electrification isn't one of them. I'm not showing a full moon, either, I don't care how much is offered.


I'm in the mood for voicemail

Anybody who has voicemail knows you can waste entire minutes every day, sorting through messages, erasing and saving and prioritizing.

Researchers at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (who apparently have a lot of time on their hands) have come up with a software that will prioritize your voicemail on the basis of the callers' moods.

Emotive Alert software measures the volume and pitch of the voice and the ratio of words to pauses in each message, then compares them to eight "acoustical fingerprints" representing different emotional states: happy, sad, excited, calm, urgent, not urgent, formal and informal.

Critics say this technology could have a downside. Telemarketers likely will figure out how to leave messages that score highly for "urgency," so they'll go to the top of the list. Every time you check your voicemail, all the most urgent messages will be "spam." Just like your e-mail is now.

Telemarketing is only the most obvious hitch with emotion-recognition software, however. I can think of lots of other problems:

--How will the software analyze those prerecorded messages used by doctor's offices, where everything is a robotic drone except the time and date of your next appointment, which is filled in by the chirpy receptionist? Will the resulting pauses and tone changes move the call to the bottom of the list? If you've got a voicemail message that begins, "The results of your medical tests are in," that might be a top priority.

--Will heavy breathing count as pauses?

--Does "formal" language make it a priority message? I'd be much less interested in a formal message about a picayune legal matter than in the informal language used by a redneck threatening to "come over to yore house right now and stomp a mudhole in ya."

--"Excited" rarely means a top-flight message. It usually just means the caller himself is excited, often for no good reason. My dog could leave an "excited" message.

--Does a "sad" message automatically become a low priority? Seems to me that news of Aunt Ruth's demise, while sad, might be the most important message of the day.

--Why should "happy" messages go to the top? Are we so shallow that we always want the good news first?

--Isn't such software biased against plodders? Just because there are pauses doesn't mean the message is unimportant. If the caller is distracted while leaving the message, does that push him to the bottom of the list? What if the distraction is, say, a standoff with the police?

--Doesn't this put a lot of pressure on the person leaving the message? It's already hard enough to create a brief message while remembering to leave a phone number, a good time to be reached, etc. If you knew your mood was being measured, too, couldn't the result be panic? And why isn't "panic" on that list of emotions? I would think that would be a top priority.

--For that matter, why stop there? If you're going to sort your messages by emotion, how about "anger?" Angry messages might be the ones you want first (see "mudhole" above). Other emotional states that should be measured: love, hate, rancor, loneliness, fear, envy, arousal, pity, "bad vibes," consternation, guilt, gratitude, euphoria, shyness, delirium, impatience, depression, sympathy, playfulness, boredom, "just friends," drunkenness, exaggeration, stupidity, regret, resentment, menace, misery and "the willies."

Finally, and most importantly, there's this issue: If you get so many voicemail messages every day that you need to prioritize them by mood, then you're getting too many messages. You need to slow down. Take yourself out of circulation. Get an unlisted number.

Too much voicemail can give you the willies.


He's also allergic to shivs

A reputed Colombian drug lord facing charges in New York has asked to move to a different jail cell because he's claustrophobic.

A lawyer for Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia asked a court to move his client from maximum security to the general population at the Metropolitan Detention Center because of the claustrophobia that has plagued him since he was a child.

Prosecutors allege that Ramirez Abadia led a deadly drug cartel that shipped $10 billion worth of cocaine into the United States between 1990 and 2003.

Extra points: His nickname is "Lollipop." That should go over big in gen pop.

Full story here.

Housewives aren't the only desperate ones

Suburban life's never seemed so mysterious as it does on the surprise hit of the television season, the dark comedy "Desperate Househusbands."

Hysteria Lane appears to be an idyllic suburban street, where the lawns are manicured and the vinyl siding never needs painting. But dark secrets exist behind the facades of those ranch-style homes.

On Hysteria Lane, the women work and the men stay home, diddling computers and tending the children and ignoring the housework. It's a traditional family structure turned on its head, and the consequences can be extreme -- social stigma, tax audits, bad debt, even murder.

Let's meet the "Desperate Househusbands:"

--Leonard Downsizer had a high-paying corporate position until his job was shipped off to India. Then he and his wife decided that she'd work and he'd stay home with their four small children. Leonard questions this decision on an hourly basis, particularly when the little hellions set his minivan on fire or run the neighbor's hamster through the blender. Leonard never knew it would be so difficult to "manage" the children. He regularly thinks about going back to an office to escape the kids, but the family dog keeps eating his resume, then woofing it up on the carpet. To deal with the everyday stress, Leonard's developed a bad habit: All-day cocktails, milky concoctions of rum and Mylanta that he calls Housework ("Just doin' the Housework, dear. Hic."). Will Leonard admit his problem when his friends mount an "intervention?"

--Edam Limburger, a perky redhead of a man, keeps a perfect house and raises seemingly perfect children. But something stinks in the Limburger household. Edam's wife, Gouda, is having an affair with her boss, and Edam has found out. Now he'll do everything he can to torture poor Gouda. The Limburgers' eldest son, Jack, has moved back home from Monterey, and he's troubled by the marital discord. He thinks the only solution is to slice all the neighbors into wedges. Edam, meanwhile, is spreading himself too thin: He's captivated by two sisters who live with their redneck daddy in a nearby trailer park. Will Edam let these crackers ruin his life?

--Divorced and alone, Larry Loosebottom lives on Hysteria Lane only until the mortgage company catches him answering the door. He spends all day every day in his bathrobe, unwashed and unshaven, browsing his computer rather than doing the work that's piled up next to all the unpaid bills. Larry once had a wife, a family, a position of responsibility in the community, but he lost it all because of his dark secret -- an addiction to E-Bay.

--Stuart Schniffle, the neighborhood snoop, wastes much of every day peering out his windows. Alone at home all day, Stuart is desperate for contact with the outside world. Every noise, every passing wisp of gossip, drags him away from his work. Disgusted by his nosiness, the neighbors shun Stuart. His own family has begun to avoid him because he never has anything interesting to say. But Stuart's snooping has finally paid off. He's found out a dark secret: The women of Hysteria Lane are planning an uprising.

When they first agreed to the husbands working at home, the wives felt daring and bold and proud of their men. But now that they've seen what a cheesy mess their husbands are making, they're ready to turn the tables. They'll trade in their bosses and deadlines for the isolation, tedium and child endangerment that comes with working at home.

If they hate being at home, they can always get together in the afternoons with their fellow housewives. To comiserate. Over a pitcher of Housework.


Apparently, they have no Xerox machine

People in the Nebraska town of Valentine are in a dither over a vandal who leaves greasy butt-prints on the windows of businesses.

The night prowler has gotten away with this strange behavior for more than a year, though police say there was a pause during the fall and winter, presumably because of cold weather.

The man apparently gets smeared up good with lotion or Vaseline, then goes to work on the windows of churches, hotels and stores. People show up the next morning to find his "gross" calling card.

Police say some of the vandalism might've been by copycats, which makes it all the odder.

Extra points: Local folks call the vandal the "Butt Bandit."

Full story here.

Only people weirder than your kids? Their friends

No matter how loving a parent you are, there will come a time when you look at your child and secretly think, "What a weirdo."

It could come when the child is, say, four years old, after the "new" has worn off. One day, you'll look at this boy as he's screaming around your house, wearing only Power Rangers underwear and a saucepan on his head, and you'll think: "He's so strange."

Or, this epiphany might come when the child is older. Perhaps when she's in middle school and boldly announces that she wants to pierce her nose and wear a ring there, a la El Toro. As the parents calmly argue against this cosmetic move, what's going through their minds is: "You wingnut."

Do not feel guilty about these moments, parents. They are universal. There's nothing wrong with your parenting skills. There's something wrong with your child. Namely, childhood.

Children are different from the rest of us. They are seething vessels of hormones and imagination and impulse and energy. They act inappropriately, usually at the worst possible times, and they make terrible decisions, all in the name of "fun." Worse yet, they typically get away with it.

If an adult burst into a dinner party naked, one hand stuck in a jar of peanut butter and the other dragging a squawling cat by its tail, we wouldn't invite that adult to any more social occasions. But if a three-year-old does the same thing, we all say, "Isn't that cute?" Even the embarrassed parents, who are, on the inside, thinking, "Holy socks, our kid is a psycho."

There is one way for parents to feel better about their children's strange behaviors: Look at their friends.

Pay attention to the little crackpots who come over for play-dates, and pretty soon you'll find yourself thinking: "OK, my child's weird, but not as weird as that kid."

For every tot who refuses to eat beans, there's another somewhere who sticks beans up his nose. For every little girl who dotes on Barbie, there's one who sets fire to Barbie. For every boy who thinks saucepans make good helmets, there's one who thinks saucepans make good bedpans. For every teen who dresses like a vampire, there's one who actually sleeps inside a coffin and drinks blood.

That kid, the one who's even weirder than your own? He or she will be your child's best friend. And, in comparison, your own child will start to look pretty darned good.

Children don't do this on purpose. They select their friends on the basis of shared interests, mutual attraction and convenience. They're not trying to make themselves look better in parents' eyes. It just turns out that way.

Teens are working a completely different agenda. They choose oddball friends because they think that will make their own parents crazy. It's part of the rebellion of adolescence. Everything parents say is wrong, including helpful hints about who's an appropriate friend. Whichever weirdo you parents express the most misgivings about, that's the one your child will end up rooming with in college. Or marrying. Or both.

But try not to think that far ahead, parents. Look at your child's friends as they are today and take heart. Your own situation could be worse.

But keep this little nugget in mind as well: When your children go to visit another household, a parent there undoubtedly is studying them and thinking: "OK, my child is weird, but at least I don't have to raise those kids."


Palin in comparison

Loved this quote regarding John McCain's selection of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin: "I've spent more time shopping for a car than he spent choosing a potential president."

That's Democratic political analyst Dan Payne, who wrote a scathing op-ed piece in the Boston Globe about all the unpleasant baggage the Alaska governor brings to the McCain campaign. If you want a quick review, this is a good place to start.

Read it here.

You've been warned

Reading warning labels can be hazardous to your mental health.

We're surrounded by warnings these days. Consumer product labels and owner's manuals contain paragraphs of fine-print legalese, alerting us to potential danger.

Corporations try to anticipate all hazards, including any that might be dreamed up by especially creative idiots. Thus, we get electric hair dryers with labels warning against using them in the shower, and Styrofoam cups that warn, "This coffee is HOT!!!"

These warnings have become so prevalent and bizarre that a group called Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, or M-LAW, hosts an annual Wacky Warning Label Contest. One recent winner was a toilet brush with a tag that says, "Do not use for personal hygiene."

M-Law president Robert B. Dorigo Jones said, "Warning labels are a sign of our lawsuit-plagued times. Plaintiffs lawyers who file the lawsuits that prompt these warnings argue they are making us safer, but the warnings have become so long that few of us read them anymore -- even the ones we should read."

If nobody's reading them anyway, why not include every possible contingency on every label? Couldn't we save a lot of time, grief and legal fees by creating a Universal Warning Label? To wit:

WARNING: Do not use this product for any reason, ever. If you choose to ignore this warning, the manufacturer takes no responsibility for any harm, injury or inconvenience that may result.

May cause cancer, birth defects, abdominal distress, headaches, allergic reactions, scabies, leprosy and bad vibes. Do not use this product if you have an existing medical condition, such as breathing.

Do not use this product if you are taking prescription medication. May cause drowsiness, especially if combined with alcohol. Do not operate heavy machinery.

Do not use if packaging shows signs of tampering. Do not eat the packaging. Do not suffocate yourself with the packaging.

Not a flotation device. Do not use this product as a parachute. Do not drive this product off a cliff into a steaming pool of lava. Not for bungee jumping. Do not use for sexual pleasure or personal hygiene.

Wear protective headgear.

Electric shock hazard! Do not use this product while standing in a puddle. Do not urinate on live wires. Do not stick your tongue to batteries to see if they're still good.

Expect a certain amount of shrinkage. Some settling may have occured during shipment. Wash whites separately.

This product contains calories. And fat. If you eat it, you may become fat yourself. This is not the manufacturer's fault.

Keep out of reach of children and adults who are deemed "slow."

Use at your own risk. Improper use of this product could result in fire, injury or death. Proper use of the product might be chancy, too. I'd carefully set it down and back away, if I were you.

Seek professional help. Buy the service contract. Pay extra for rust protection. Warranty is null and void.

Failure to read and heed this warning could result in accident, injury, brain damage, suffocation, disease, facial swelling, monetary loss, unemployment, bankruptcy, pregnancy, loss of limbs or digits, alcoholism, addiction, alienation, defamation, ridicule, unsightly body hair, hives or the heebie-jeebies.

None of these results are the responsibility of the manufacturer.

Please don't sue us. Please.


Putting lipstick on a doll

In case you haven't heard: You can now get a posable action-figure doll of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

A company called herobuilders.com has released the $30 doll, complete with glasses and up-do, in three models. In one version, she's dressed in normal clothes. But in the other two, it appears the dollmakers have stuck her head on other dolls' bodies. One's dressed just like Angelina Jolie in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," complete with trenchcoat and a pistol in a strap-on thigh holster. The other's done up like a sexy schoolgirl a la Britney Spears.

No word on when we can expect a doll of a dead caribou to pose with her.

For the record, the company also makes dolls of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama (but not Sen. Joe Biden). They also have one of former candidate John Edwards wearing a T-shirt that says "Rogue."

Full story (with photos) here and a million other places on the Internet.

Barefoot bear barely beats bus

As I write this, the soles of my feet are still smarting from my morning jog on the sidewalk outside.

That's because I went jogging in bare feet and pajamas, chasing after my son, who'd hiked off toward the school bus stop. Without his lunch money.

Haha, you say, that must've been a sight -- fat old bear of a guy puffing along in his PJ's -- and I'm sure you're right. Fortunately, I didn't run into any neighbors. Their kids apparently remembered their lunch money before leaving the house.

All across America, however, other parents know that sinking feeling that occurs when they realize the kids have departed the house without their lunch money/musical instruments/homework/science projects/pants. Chasing after them is a major source of exercise for parents of school-age children.

You'd think that, after a few years of this, the kids would learn to do their own inventory before they leave. Pat down their pockets, asking themselves, "Have I got everything I need?" But you'd be wrong.

Kids never learn this. The son I was chasing this morning? He's 15.

Yes, I could've let him go without lunch. Yes, I could've made him beg food off his friends; he's done it before. All you stern disciplinarians out there will think: Could've taught him a lesson. But, whoops, you'd be wrong again. Adolescents don't learn from such experiences. They simply blame us parents for forgetting the lunch money, and we have to hear about their suffering for a week. Better to go for the morning jog in jammies.

No matter how well-prepared the parents may be, no matter how much planning is done or how many outfits are laid out the night before, school-day mornings are chaos.

Everyone's working at cross-purposes. The children typically aren't eager to run out the door for another day of enforced edification, so they drag their feet or wander off. We parents want the kids out of the house, equipped with everything they need for the school day, so we follow them from room to room, wringing our hands and saying, "Do you have your homework? Lunch money? Did you brush your teeth? Comb your hair? Do you have your house key?"

That last-minute inventory-taking is important. Without it, parents find themselves driving to school hours later, ferrying a Play-Doh volcano to Science Fair before the deadline expires. (Murphy's Law says the project will slide off the seat into the floorboard, so the parent shows up with a lopsided volcano. More recriminations.)

The morning routine gets slightly easier as the kids get older. Kindergarteners need so much stuff -- snacks, jackets, mittens, paste, pencils -- that parents need a U-Haul trailer to ferry it all down to the bus stop. Elementary school students have less to carry because all their stuff is in the school lost-and-found.

Teens haul their own junk in their enormous backpacks, but they still must be quizzed about what they're forgetting. And, they must be forced to remove their stereo headphones to hear the questions, which makes them grumble and snarl.

It's worth all the fuss, though, when the parent goes through the list and hits upon the one item the kid's forgotten:

Parent: "Did you brush your teeth?"
Kid: "Of course." (Rolling eyes.) "Gawd."
Parent: "Got your homework?"
Kid: "Uh, no."
Parent: "A-ha!"

There's no time to gloat, however. You need to save your breath. Because a few minutes later, you'll be running for the bus stop, screaming your child's name and waving his lunch money over your head.

I recommend shoes.

(Editor's note: I wrote this one a few years ago. Now, in similar circumstances, we call the teen's cell phone and say, "Come back and get your lunch money. Or starve."


"Lonely Street" finally hits the big screen

I learned today that the world premiere of "Lonely Street," the movie based on my first novel, is scheduled for this weekend at the Boston Film Festival. Hurray!

The movie is to be shown in a prime slot on Sunday night. Director Peter Ettinger and actor/producer Kevin Chapman (who is from Boston) will be on hand to answer questions and meet/greet. No doubt they'll be hunting for distributors as well.

"Lonely Street" suffered a year's worth of delays in post-production, one damned thing after another, and I was beginning to worry that no one would ever see it. The independent film, which stars Jay Mohr, Robert Patrick and Joe Mantegna, is based on the first book in my Bubba Mabry private eye series.

Here's the link to the Boston Film Festival.

Dumbski assimova?

A Russian financier is demanding his $10 million deposit back and seeking millions in damages because a $53 million penthouse apartment he purchased at New York's Plaza Hotel was "attic-like."

Andrei Vavilov is suing the developers, saying he was the victim of a "classic bait-and-switch" because he was led to believe the property would be one of the most luxurious apartments in the city. Apparently, he didn't realize that $53 million is chump change in New York's real estate market.

The kicker? Vavilov bought the penthouse without ever seeing it in person, basing his purchase on a video presentation.

How do you say "dumbass" in Russian?

Story here.

Big Mac attack in Fond Du Lac

A Wisconsin man says he's eaten at least one Big Mac from McDonald's every day (except one) for the past 36 years -- and he's got the receipts to prove it.

Don Gorske, 54, got hooked on the burgers back in 1972. An obsessive-compulsive who's fascinated by numbers, he got interested in the way McDonald's kept count of its number of burgers served, so he started collecting his receipts to see how many he ate. Last month, he passed the 23,000 mark.

Gorske said the only day he skipped a Big Mac was the day his mother died, and that was at her request.

Full story here.


Somebody answer the dog

A family in Pretoria, South Africa, paid more than $700 to have a cell phone surgically removed from the stomach of their large dog.

Marie Matthews, 67, said her daughter was feeding snacks to Nero, a Great Dane/Doberman mix, when Nero snatched the phone out of her hand and swallowed it whole.

The family took the dog to a nearby veterinary clinic, where the phone showed up on X-ray. It was removed by surgery, but had to be thrown out. Yuck.

Extra points: The daughter's name is Driekie Boojens. Really.

Full story here.

Life lessons from poker

Poker has taken the country by storm. Americans of all ages are gathering around kitchen tables to pass cards and money back and forth, just as they see the professionals do on TV.

Whoever thought poker would become a spectator sport? But it's caught on, big-time. TV ratings are so good, a dozen cable channels now feature poker tournaments as regular programming. Most anytime, day or night, you can watch the pros playing in the World Series of Poker or famous idiots playing Celebrity Poker.

I watched for a while, until I realized that the only thing lazier than sitting around and playing cards was sitting around, watching other people play cards. At least, when you're in a game yourself, there's a chance you can get your heart rate up with a winning hand.

I've played poker for years and find that it’s a fine hobby for those of us who work at home. Poker gets us out of house, forces us to interact with others, and gives us a chance to lose our paltry "incomes" in pulse-pounding ways.

I'm at best a mediocre player, so I wouldn't dream of giving advice on how to play winning poker. But I have learned some lessons I'd like to share with you amateurs.

(Even if you don't play poker, you might learn from what follows. Most of these lessons apply to everyday life in the business world.)

--There's no such thing as a "friendly" poker game. Sure, you can play with your friends. You can be friends before the game and friends again after the game. But during the game? Not so much. In fact, your very best friend is the one who'll most enjoy taking your money.

--Avoid drinking alcohol while playing poker. It makes you stupid and reckless. Plus, you'll have a hangover the next morning, so your head will pound while you try to remember where all your money went.

--Any beverage at the poker table is ill-advised. Knock over your drink and get the cards wet and you'll hear about it for weeks to come.

--Beware of players with nicknames. I've played with many Richards over the years, and have lost to all the ones known as "Dick." If you run into a player named Ace or Tiny or Curly, look out. And if you face one named Red, you might as well just give him all your money and go home early.

--No children should be allowed on the premises during a kitchen game. Not only are kids noisy distractions, but they're likely to overhear many "bad words."

--Know when to fold 'em. If you don't have the "lock" hand, the one that's unbeatable given the cards on the table, then you should fold. More than a vowel separates "lock" and "luck."

--Be careful about "tells" that tip your fellow players to whether you're holding good cards or just bluffing. Sweating, twitching, snorting, tapping, smiling, frowning, whooping or bending the cards in the Death Grip of Imminent Defeat all can reveal your intentions. Watch the pros. They show as much emotion as your average lizard.

--Never gamble with more than you can afford to lose. If you find yourself going out to the car to get the title out of the glove compartment, it's time to get behind the wheel and drive home.

--Finally, avoid playing poker in casinos. You're not ready. No, you're not. Go look at the guys who play casino poker. They're a serious bunch of lizards. They're gambling with their Social Security money. They play for keeps.

Better to give all your money to your friends. That way, you at least can go visit it later.


Not rocket surgery

No one was injured when a rocket fuel mixture exploded near Hitchcock, TX, but the retired NASA scientist working on the project might've needed a change of underwear.

Authorities say Jim Akkerman was working on a new spacecraft his firm is developing when the rocket fuel exploded. The methane-oxygen fuel mixture accumulated in the rocket engine when the engine wouldn't fire.

"It's just an experiment that went bad," said police chief Glen Manis.

Akkerman's firm, Advent Launch Services, is trying to develop a winged rocket that would take off vertically, but land horizontally on the ocean like a seaplane.

Full story here.


You could rip out your heart and stomp on it . . .

. . . or you could attend the Texas State Fair and eat some chicken-fried bacon. That's right, chicken-fried bacon. Not only does such a cholesterol bonanza really exist, but the "dish" won the best taste award at the fourth annual Big Tex Choice Awards this week.

Said creator Glen Kusak: "Everything in Texas is chicken fried and bacon makes everything taste better, so we thought we'd put the two together."

The award for most creative dish went to a fried banana split. Really.

Full story here.

Reality shows we'd like to see

Is anything more unreal than "reality" shows on TV?

All across the nation, slack-jawed viewers spend hours every week watching people get fired, swap wives, jump from cliffs, eat spiders, lie down with snakes, race around the world and vote each other off islands.

The central conceit of such programming is that it's all "real," that we're watching a slice of actual life. This is, of course, complete and utter bunk. These shows are no more about real life than "The Jerry Springer Show" is about helping families solve problems.

There's nothing "real" about being stranded on an island with a half-dozen strangers. It almost never happens in real life, and when it does, there aren't dozens of cameramen, producers and caterers running around in the background.

On all these shows, the contestants know the cameras are there, and they can't help playing to them. Emotions are ramped up. Everybody's trying for an Emmy.

Despite every attempt to drum up the fake suspense, we viewers know nothing too terrible will happen on these shows. If somebody got killed skydiving on "The Billionaire," we'd read about it in the newspaper long before the show ever aired. In fact, the network probably would cancel the show rather than air an episode that included an actual death. Probably.

Networks like reality programming because it's cheap to produce -- no scripts -- and because it gets good ratings. People watch; I don't know why.

But I wouldn't be a true-blue American if I didn't try to make a buck off this trend. I'd like to suggest that the networks focus on people like me, who work at home. For those of us trapped at home by our jobs, housework and children, life is just brimming with "reality." We can hardly move around the house without stepping in some.

Here are some ideas for home-based reality shows:

"Smear Factor"
Eleven kids are given jars of strawberry jam and are turned loose on the eggshell-white walls of a suburban house. Hilarity results when the homeowner has a heart attack.

"Stupor Nanny"
Parents leave their kids in the care of a gin-soaked British nanny, who promptly passes out, giving the children the run of the place. Soon, the house resembles a scene from "Lord of the Flies."

"The Amazing Grace"
Each week, cameras record a family dinner where someone goes on and on, blessing the food, which gets cold while the others fidget and fret. Suspense builds until the prayer ends, either with an "amen" or when someone gets stabbed with a fork.

"American Midol"
A PMS-crazed mom faces a demanding husband and screaming children. Tension mounts until she snaps and sets the house on fire.

"Pants Swap"
A comedy show about people forced to trade pants for a week. Fat guys nearly always lose.

"Super Bowl Dad"
Wife and kids risk their lives by standing in front of the TV at crucial points in the game.

"Who Wants to Bury A Billionaire?"
Advice-spouting rich guy parachutes into a suburban neighborhood where all the residents have been armed with shovels.

"Survivor: Laundry Day"
Parents are stranded in a washateria with their family's filthy clothes. Dare they wash the kids' jeans without first checking the pockets? What if a red sock gets mixed in with the whites?

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice"
Donald Trump's comb-over magically becomes a dancing broom.

"Extreme Makeover: Television"
Network programming is rebuilt from the ground up. All entertainment and creativity are removed, replaced by regular folks doing inane things in their homes until, eventually, each home is equipped with a camera and we all just sit around, watching other couch potatoes staring at TV.

Now that's what I call "reality."


Take this job and sing it

When I learned the country band Lonestar had a hit song called "Mr. Mom," my first reaction was: Hey, those guys are working my side of the street.

I've been milking the Mr. Mom work-at-home routine for years. Who do these upstarts think they are, suddenly jumping on the househusband bandwagon and getting rich off of it?

Then I began to see the error of my ways. I've been writing 600-word newspaper columns about being a middle-aged man who deals with kids and stains and housework and plumbing emergencies. That's not what consumers want. They want country songs!

And what's the secret to a hit country song? Lyrics that are easily encapsulated in one snappy catch-phrase: "Take this job and shove it." "Achy-breaky heart." "Honky-tonk heroes." "Boot scootin' boogie."

(That last one always makes me think of a cowboy who stepped in something, but never mind.)

If I want to make my Mr. Mom theme finally pay off, what I need are country song titles that will capture the public's imagination and sell a jillion copies. Doesn't matter that I can't sing or play an instrument. The snappy title's the main marketing tool here. If one of them catches Nashville's attention, I can always write a song to go under it.

Here are some of the country song titles I'm working on:

--"Stuck at Home, Sweet Darlin', While You Work"
--"Honky Tonk Soccer Daddy"
--"My Home Office Sure Is Empty Without You"
--"I Feel Like a (Washer)Woman"
--"Sadder than a Winter Coat in the Grade School Lost-and-Found"
--"Lookin' For Gloves in All the Wrong Places"
--"I Got Swingin' Doors, a Toolbox and a Casserole"
--"Oh, Little Baby, Why Won't You Let Me Sleep?"
--"Cold, Cold Leftovers"
--"I Do Paperwork After Midnight"
--"Come Back, Sweetheart, and Take These Children Away"
--"Another Saturday Night and I'm Watchin' Barney"
--"You Can't Get Grape Jelly Out of Rayon, Darlin'"
--"Achy-Breaky Shake 'n' Bakey"
--"Can't Chase Women While Wearin' an Apron"
--"If I Had a Hammer (I'd Break My Thumb With It)"
--"In the Poorhouse Now"
--"The Toilet Overflowed and Washed My Sanity Away"
--"A Man of Constant Borrow," from the hit movie, "O Brother, Where Art That Money I Loaned You?"
--"That's Not Lipstick, I Swear. It's Crayola"
--"Your Cheatin' Lawyer"
--"I Can't Change, Baby, But That Diaper's Got To"
--"Tumblin' Dustbunnies"
--"We're Cookin' Tonight, Sweet Mama, 'Cause We Can't Afford No Fast Food"
--"Nothing Wrong with You a Little Salve Wouldn't Fix"
--"Vacuumin' For Your Love"
--"Broken Dreams and Smart-Aleck Teens"
--"Can't Spruce Up the Place While I Pine Over You"
--"Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Work in Cubicles"
--"I'll Kiss It and Make It Better"
--"Real Cowboys Don't Wear Sweatpants"
--"The Kids Pushed Me (In Front of that Train)"
--"Rednecks, White Socks and Clean Underwear"
--"Computer Reboot Boogie"
--"If You've Got the Money, Honey, I'll Work at Home"


Bird zapper

Somehow, an emu ended up running loose on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near New Stanton, PA. State police chased the bird around for two hours before finally "subduing" it with a stun gun.

The four-foot-tall Australian bird couldn't see a way off the turnpike because of five-foot-tall barriers on either side, police said. With traffic blocked, police tried several methods to catch the speedy bird, including a cowboy-style lasso, but it managed to evade them every time.

Finally, they zapped the poor bird with a stun gun and moved it to the side of the road. It died a short time later.

"I think what happened is after about two hours of running around on the roadway, it probably had a heart attack," said state police Sgt. Anthony DeLuca.

Or maybe it was the stun gun.

Full story here.

Bad news bearers

Of all the modern afflictions that plague today's parents -- sleeplessness, sass, televised violence, fast food, Eminem -- nothing's worse than the dreaded Call From School.

You parents know these calls -- when you answer the ringing phone and a disembodied voice on the other end identifies itself as being from your child's school. Is anything more instantly stomach-wrenching?

It's never good news. School officials don't call the parents to say little Johnny made the honor roll or that little Ruthie is an introspective, respectful scholar. No, they only call in cases of emergency or dire misbehavior.

Sad to say, but experienced parents know that the absolute best news that can come from such a call is that the child is slightly ill. Throwing up, or headachy, or running a mild fever. When it's the school nurse on the phone, we parents immediately assume broken limbs or random gunshots. When the nurse says little Johnny merely yarked all over his teacher, it comes as something of a relief.

Yes, the child's illness disrupts our workday and might even require a quick trip to the doctor, but at least there's nothing life-threatening. More importantly, calls from the nurse concern something that's completely out of the parents' control -- a virus, a germ, a freak accident on the seesaw.

We don't want our children to be sick, but we'll take that any day over the calls that report discipline problems. With bad behavior, there's always the implication that the parents are to blame.

Where did little Johnny learn such language? Why doesn't he do his homework? Why does he keep picking fights? Why does little Ruthie suffer temper tantrums? Why does she dress like a tramp? Is everything all right at home?

Teachers, counselors and administrators have the kids' best interests at heart, and most of them have more patience and understanding than your average saint. When things go wrong, there comes a point when they must simply throw up their hands and lob the problem back to the parents.

But the ever-present implication that the kids are not being reared properly only serves to dump a big shovelful of guilt on the parents.

(Granted, some parents need that wake-up call. There are certainly some homes where everything is not all right.)

But most of us parents are doing the best we can. We monitor the homework production and we turn off the TV and we try to get our wild-eyed children to eat something other than processed sugar. We lecture and scold and threaten.

For seven hours a day, however, the kids are out of our hands. They're in the wilds of school, being stalked by bullies and pressured by peers and exposed to bad influences. When the kids inevitably act up in response, it's not the bullies or the bad influences who get the Call From School.

The call goes to us guilt-ridden, worried parents. And we're expected to do something to fix the problem.

The only solution is for parents to use caller ID to avoid these calls. Kidding! The real answer to misbehavior is for the parents to march right down to the school playground and push little Johnny off the seesaw.

Then, when the Call From School comes, it'll be from the nurse. And the parents can act surprised and say, "Is everything all right at school?"


Tip: Always assume the microphone's ON

Oh, my. First, it was Jesse Jackson whispering about snipping off parts of Barack Obama's anatomy. Today, Republican talking heads Mike Murphy and Peggy Noonan were caught on open mikes on MSNBC, saying the presidential race is "over" because of John McCain's "cynical" selection of running mate Sarah Palin.

Murphy and Noonan, who are veteran Republican pundits, were caught talking during a commercial break about McCain's campaign falling for the "narrative" of a working mom on the ticket, but picking the wrong one. Republicans at the national convention are described as being "bummed" over the selection of Palin.

See/hear it for yourself here.

Cane fu

A 60-year-old man in Gateshead, England, fended off a sword-wielding wingnut by clocking him over the head with his walking stick.

David Fawcett said he was walking with two friends when they spotted a man urinating outdoors. When the woman in the group chided the pisser, he attacked the trio with a beer bottle, then said he was going to get his sword and would be back to kill them all.

They didn't take the threat seriously until the assailant showed up a few minutes later, samurai sword in hand, and chased them into a takeout restaurant. When the man tried to break down the door, Fawcett whammed him one with the walking stick. Police arrested the reeling man a short time later.

Full story here.


Flaming balls

And you thought the Burning Man festival was weird.

In Nejapa, El Salvador, residents have an annual festival in which they throw fireballs at each other. The Aug. 31 festival commemorates the eruption of a nearby volcano in 1922. Participants take to the streets, throwing palm-sized balls of fire at each other and celebrating wildly as their fellow citizens go up in flames. Dozens of people were hospitalized with severe burns this year, and people have died in past years.

"Nejapa" is apparently local vernacular for "idiot."

Full story (with photos) here.

Mismanagement the easy way: Act like a parent

Any boss who goes home at the end of a hard workday, muttering about how employees act like children, won't be surprised to learn that parenting skills and management abilities are more or less interchangeable.

That's the point made by former New York Times reporter Ann Crittenden in her book, "If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything," (Gotham Books).

Crittenden interviewed 100 people and found that the best parenting skills -- negotiation, multitasking, mentoring, setting priorities -- translate directly to the workplace. Taking the long view has benefits at both home and the office. Letting children or employees take risks helps them grow. It's important not to play favorites, and to respect each person's individuality.

All very nice. If you're a parent or a manager or both, do yourself a favor and consider Crittenden's thesis. It might make you perform better on all fronts.

However, the advice gathered by the author mostly reflects the lessons learned from good parenting. Bad parenting produces just as many guidelines. Some examples follow.

--Yelling alone will never get peanut butter out of upholstery.

--Conversely, the "silent treatment" rarely works. Kids assume you've dozed off.

--Even a really good juggler occasionally drops a ball. Blaming the bystanders won't keep the rest of the balls in the air.

--The problem with ultimatums such as, "Don't make me stop this car!" is you've got to be willing to actually stop the car.

--Cursing by the parent leads children to believe that tossing around a few cusswords is appropriate. Such locker-room behavior is kind of cute, until the minister stops by to visit.

--You can lead a boy to water, but you can't make him bathe. Not properly, anyway.

--Children will get their revenge, no matter how long it takes. You've got to sleep sometime.

--Want to stifle creativity and playfulness? Say, "Don't be silly."

--Impatience leads to learned helplessness. If you jump in to show your children "the right way" to do a chore, they will forever after do it the wrong way first. They're betting that you'll jump in again, and they won't ever have to do the work.

--Never get drunk in front of your children (or your co-workers). They'll never forget it, and they won't let you forget it, either.

--Gossip will be repeated. A child often will take the gossip directly to the person you were bad-mouthing. So will an employee.

--If you begin a sentence with, "When I was your age . . .", you should expect a certain amount of sighing and eye-rolling.

--If you supply Crayons and blank walls, you've got to expect "artwork."

--Children/employees see through lies, unless the lies are about something they really want to believe in, such as the tooth fairy or cheaper health care coverage. When they inevitably learn the truth, they'll never look at you the same.

--Kids learn by example. If your children see you spending all your time on the sofa, watching TV and drinking beer, they'll end up doing the same, right beside you. And you'll have to buy a bigger sofa.

--Act underappreciated. Tell your children, "You'll miss me when I'm gone." It makes them want you "gone" sooner.

--Spanking hurts your hand a lot more than it hurts the offender's bottom.

--Remember the Soccer Dad Principle: You can be a blustery jerk who demands too much and blames the referee, or you can shout encouragement from the sidelines. Which one gets better results?


How do you mend a broken hard drive?

Modern career couples often rely on service-industry personnel -- gardeners, caterers, house cleaners -- to make their lives easier, but what most of us really need are computer technicians.

This is especially true for those of us who work in home offices. We depend on our computers, but we're out here all alone, far from the assistance of any tech services department that could bail us out when things get dicey.

We have a tenuous, love-hate relationship with our computers. We love how easy they make some jobs. We love the instant access to information. We love e-mail and that sense of connectedness to the world. We hate, hate, hate our computers when they go wrong.

Owning a computer is like being married to a felon. They make life exciting at times, but you just know you'll wind up with a broken heart.

They lie to you. ("This download will take 12 minutes . . . 47 minutes … 2 hours, 36 minutes . . . 14 days.") They cheat on you (adware, spyware) and try to dip into your money (spam). They bring home the occasional virus. When you need them most, they lock themselves up and throw away the key.

We try to salvage the relationship. We lose many man-hours (not to mention a lot of hair) attempting to repair our own computers.

We don't really understand how these machines work, so we're afraid to go poking too deeply into their twisted bowels. Our answer to every glitch is to reboot and pray.

When that doesn't work, we inch along through System Restore and various other lifesaving programs, only to end up back where we started -- with all our important data frozen inside a block of plastic on our desks.

When all else fails, we call a toll-free number, where we reach a technician who directs us through the very same steps we just tried. Since this technician can't actually see our computers, s/he is simply running through corporate protocols -- educated guesses about what might be wrong. In the end, all the customer gets out of this interaction is a bill.

After going through this rigmarole a time or two, home computer users recognize we're simply lucky whenever our computers function properly, and we don't want to do anything to disturb that.

We treat them so gently, you'd think they were teetering on the corners of our desks, ready to commit suicide. We don't want to do anything that might push them over the edge. We don't want to download anything, ever. We don't even want to perform routine maintenance for fear something will go wrong and we'll end up in that most dreaded place of all -- The Frozen Blue Screen of Death.

Since we clearly can't manage our computers ourselves, what we home-office workers need is someone who's always on standby to fix or maintain them -- a Household Nerd (trademark registration pending). When a computer acts up, we could call in the nerd, who would correct the problem while we go out to a relaxing three-martini lunch.

We could designate a spare bedroom for the nerd -- sort of like a maid's quarters -- and arrange for his care and feeding. Pay him a regular allowance. Provide him with his own computer to keep him busy between repairs.

It would be exactly like having a teen-ager in the house. But unlike the typical smart-aleck teen, the Household Nerd really would have the skills to remedy computer woes.

And mend our broken hearts.

(Editor's note: Since I originally published this column, services like Geek Squad and Nerds on Call have become commonplace. I am a regular client. Sigh.)